At 55, Nanette Witmer retired from her job in Denver and, with a new husband, moved to David, Panama. Their plan was to age together in a low-cost paradise. Eighteen months later, the husband was gone and Witmer found herself contemplating a future as an “elder orphan” — someone aging without a spouse, partner or children.
Witmer, now 59, decided her best bet was to stay in Panama. “The support group here is phenomenal,” she says, largely made up of other American retirees eager to help and connect with one another. “I don’t think I would find the same group in America. … I lived in my house in Denver for almost 22 years and I didn’t really know my neighbors.”
While Witmer’s solution may be unusual, her challenges are not. “We’re seeing more individuals aging alone,” says Maria Torroella Carney, chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and North Shore University Hospital in New York. Carney has been working to raise awareness of the issue.
About 20% of U.S. women now reach their 50s without having children, up from 10% in the 1970s, says a recent report on caregiving from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. And one third of middle-age adults are heading toward retirement years as singles, after never marrying, divorce or widowhood, the report says. Women, especially, are likely to stay single or become single as they age, with more than 80% unmarried after age 85, according to other government statistics.
While many may treasure their independence, the problem is that, sooner or later, most people need help with health care and household tasks — help that most often is provided by spouses or grown children, according to the caregiving report.
Many people, Carney says, realize too late — when they are in a hospital or are otherwise in crisis — that they do not have the support they need.
But some single and childless people, like Witmer, are anticipating the challenges that may lie in the decades ahead and are banding together for support and advice.
A few months ago, Carol Marak, editor of the website SeniorCare.com, started a Facebook group for elder orphans. It already has attracted more than 3,300 members and includes people ages 55 and up. A majority are women.
Group discussions cover everything from housing to transportation to loneliness, Marak says. As a 65-year-old woman without a spouse, partner or children, she shares those concerns, she says.
Marak, who lives in Waco, Texas, says she is lucky to have close older siblings, but she knows she may outlive them. “I’m the baby,” she says. “I’m the one caring for them when they need help.”
She also believes she won’t be able to keep up her two-story home on her own. So a move is in her future, she says.
Some elder orphans are deciding to move in together or form other communal arrangements. Those folks can seek the wisdom of Marianne Kilkenny. Kilkenny, 66, retired from a Silicon Valley career in human resources a decade ago with the idea that she “wanted to live like the Golden Girls.” Kilkenny did just that — sharing several houses in Asheville, N.C., with other older adults — and founded an organization called Women for Living in Community. She’s also written a book, Your Quest for Home.
Among her tips for house-sharing: Aim for separate bathrooms, set rules on “alone time,” and pick your housemates carefully. “People think this is going to work without any effort and that just is not the case,” she says.
Kilkenny now is trying something different: living solo, but "in community" with several neighbors. She and her neighbors, including a younger family with a child, get together for weekly potluck dinners, have gardened and exercised together, and generally keep an eye out for one another.
Marak hopes her Facebook group will help more elder orphans to find support in their offline communities, including neighbors who might share rides or swap household tasks.
It’s smart to look for such solutions while you are relatively young, sharp and healthy, Carney says. Here are some things she says you can do to prepare if you are at risk for becoming an elder orphan:
- Look at where you live and ask yourself some questions. Do you know your neighbors and have a sense of community? Will you be able to walk to stores and activities when you can no longer drive? Could you relocate to be near supportive family members or friends?
- Check out resources, such as senior centers, recreational facilities and classes that might help you stay engaged in your community. Look for delivery services for groceries, medicines and other essentials.
- Identify someone who can help make health care decisions for you in a crisis (called a health care proxy or durable power of attorney for health care). This could be a friend if a family member is not available or appropriate. Talk with this person and draw up the papers to make it official.
- Reach out to distant or estranged family members and friends. Mending fences might make your life much richer now and in the future.